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Are We Body-and-Soul or Body-Soul-and-Spirit?

• Daniel Baker

Posted in Bible, Sanctification, Sermons, Theology

Last Sunday we finished our 1 Thessalonians series and looked at 5:23 in that letter, "Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." The main burden of this text is assuring us that God will indeed finish his work of making us holy. He will not fail in that!

But this verse also presents us with a question: When it says "spirit and soul and body," is it assuming that we have three distinct parts in us—that is, a spirit that is separate from our soul that is separate from our body? I don't think so. Clearly, I wouldn't say that if this verse were alone in our New Testament. We have to look at other Scriptures to understand what 5:23 is saying.

Calling a person two parts is calling him a dichotomy, and so the view that says man is body-soul is often called the dichotomist position. The view that sees him as three parts is calling a person a trichotomy, and so, as you might guess, this view is called the trichotomist position.

So, why do I and others believe that people are fundamentally two parts (dichotomy) and not three parts (trichotomy)? Here are some things to consider.


Wayne Grudem in his excellent discussion on this topic makes an initial point worth highlighting at the outset here.

Before asking whether Scripture views 'soul' and 'spirit' as distinct parts of man, we must at the outset make it clear that the emphasis of Scripture is on the overall unity of man as created by God.
Systematic Theology, 473

That means I am a unity before I am a "body and soul." Who sinned when I sinned? I did. It wasn't my body but not my soul. Who loves God when I love God? I do. It isn't my soul in some outer-body existence. Who loves people when I love them? I do. Love is my heart expressing that love through the actions of my body. It isn't just a feeling in my heart, and it isn't just an action I perform. Our heart and our body are fully engaged when we sin, love, hate, obey, disobey, worship, and do all that we do.


Some verses in our New Testament do seem to indicate a distinction between our soul and our spirit. Along with 1 Thessalonians 5:23 above Hebrews 4:12 says that the power of the Word of God is its ability to actually separate "soul" and "spirit":

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Heb. 4:12)

Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:4 seems to point to our souls and spirits doing different things simultaneously:

For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. (1 Cor. 14:14)

Again, if 1 Thessalonians 5:23, Hebrews 4:12, and 1 Corinthians 14:14 were our only New Testament references, we would have to affirm that we are actually three parts, a trichotomy. Yet, without wrestling with the rest of the data, we won't be able to make sense of these verses. So we'll look at two sets of Scriptures first and then come back to these three references.


I think the most persuasive argument for the dichotomist position is the cascade of verses that show the interchangeability of the terms "soul" and "spirit." This point is crucial because if our spirit and our soul are distinctly different parts of us, then you have to be able to say what our spirit can do that our soul can't, and what our soul can do that our spirit can't. But when you look at the actions and attributes ascribed to each of them in the New Testament, you realize that they are each doing the same things. So it makes more sense to say that they are simply two ways of looking at the same thing.

Here are what our soul and spirit are said to do in the New Testament (a list of verses I found in Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 472-477):

I can be troubled in soul or spirit:

"Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. (John 12:27)

 After saying these things, Jesus was troubled in his spirit, and testified, "Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me." (John 13:21)

I can rejoice with my soul or with my spirit:

And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord,

47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. (Luke 1:46-47)

Death is said to be when our soul departs or when our spirit departs:

…the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, (Heb. 12:23)

 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, (1 Peter 3:19)

But God said to him, 'Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' (Luke 12:20)

 Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!" And having said this he breathed his last. (Luke 23:46)

We are described as "body and soul" and as "body and spirit":

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matt. 10:28)

you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. (1 Cor. 5:5)

I can sin with my spirit or with my soul:

"The fruit for which your soul longed has gone from you, and all your delicacies and your splendors are lost to you, never to be found again!" (Rev. 18:14)

 Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God. (2 Cor. 7:1)

I know things with my spirit, something we typically ascribe to our soul:

And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, "Why do you question these things in your hearts? (Mark 2:8)

For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. (1 Cor. 2:11)

I love God with my spirit and with my soul:

As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. 2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? (Ps. 42:1-2)

 My spirit rejoices in God my Savior. (Luke 1:47)


Another set of Scriptures helps us see that the Bible has a huge variety of ways that it speaks about the physical part of us (body) and the non-physical part of us (soul/spirit). This should give us pause in thinking of these terms in an overly technical manner. Here is a mere sampling of what we find in the New Testament:

  • 1 Thessalonians 5:23, "spirit and soul and body";
  • 1 Corinthians 7:34, "body and spirit";
  • Matthew 10:28, "soul and body";
  • James 2:26, "body" and "spirit";
  • Luke 10:27, "heart," "soul," "strength," "mind";
  • Matthew 22:37, "heart," "soul," "mind";
  • Romans 12:1-2, "bodies" and "mind";
  • Matthew 12:34, "heart" and "mouth" (body);
  • 1 Corinthians 14:14, "spirit" and "mind";
  • Hebrews 4:12, "soul," "spirit," "joints," "marrow," "heart."

Because of this broad variety, when we do find a set of terms piled on top of each other like in Luke 10:27, we should assume that the author there doesn't imply a precise division between the terms. Instead, as in the Luke example, what Jesus means is that we are to love God with every fiber of our being, with all that we are, with every ounce of energy that we have. He doesn't mean that a person is four parts—heart, soul, strength, mind.

I think this leads us to the conclusion that Wayne Grudem makes:

"Scripture does not seem to support any distinction between soul and spirit. There does not seem to be a satisfactory answer to the questions that we may address to a trichotomist, 'What can the spirit do that the soul cannot do? What can the soul do that the spirit cannot do?"
(Systematic Theology, 472)


But now that we've seen that the these words likely refer to the same part of our being, we have to acknowledge that words mean something, right? "Soul" and "spirit" might refer to the same part of us, but they aren't technical synonyms. Each brings a different nuance to what is being described.

When the Bible speaks of our "soul," perhaps we should think first about the moment in Genesis 2 where "the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground." His body was formed precisely as God designed. For all other creatures the Lord simply said, "Let there be." For Adam, the Lord formed him from dust.

But after his body was formed, the Lord "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature." This "breath of life" was our soul, not just oxygen into our lungs or some mere physical event. With his soul the man could now hear the Word of God, fulfill the calling the Lord gave to him, and marry the woman that the Lord would give to him. He could think, worship, reason, obey (and disobey), speak, and do all the things that a person can do (cf. Gen. 2:8ff.). The soul, then, is that distinct part of us that takes a clay statue of dust and turns it into a person.

When the Bible speaks of our non-physical part as "spirit," it often connects with the unique way that the Holy Spirit engages with us. As an example, 1 Corinthians 6:17 says that "he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him." The idea here is that our spirit and the Holy Spirit unite when we become Christians. Paul could have said that our soul and the Holy Spirit become one at conversion, but here he is emphasizing that unity that exists between us and the Lord. "Spirit" captures that better.

Thus, H.D. McDonald in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology said it well: "The pneuma (spirit) is man's nonmaterial nature looking Godward; the psyche (soul) is that same nature of man looking earthward and touching the things of sense."

OUR THREE SCRIPTURES—1 Thessalonians 5:23; Hebrews 4:12; 1 Corinthians 14:14

Now we're ready to tackle the three Scriptures I mentioned earlier. How are we to understand these? I'll give my view based on the above passages, but obviously there are a lot of different approaches to these.

It seems that 1 Thessalonians 5:23 means "all of us." When Paul prays, "may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless," he means, "your whole being." This is like Jesus telling us to "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind" (Luke 10:27).

In Hebrews 4:12 the author is highlighting the unmatched power of the Word of God. It is so uniquely powerful that it can even pierce "the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow," and discern "the thoughts and intentions of the heart." Since we know that essentially the soul and the spirit are the same, then the Word of God's power is in penetrating to the most hidden parts of us and bringing light into those dark places. "Joints" and "marrow" can physically be separated, but that doesn't need to be true of "thoughts" and "intentions" or "soul" and "spirit" for this verse to have meaning. The Bible penetrates what is impenetrable to our insights and eyes. That's the point.

1 Corinthians 14:14 highlights the way we can both pray consciously and pray spiritually (i.e., with the Holy Spirit in us). It is not that two different parts of us are doing separate things, like walking and chewing gum.  We are united with the Holy Spirit at conversion, and part of the glory of that unity is that the Spirit can do things through us even without our knowing. This shouldn't surprise us, for isn't this what happens when we pray for someone and they are healed? Our words and hands certainly didn't heal them. But as we did something conscious, the Spirit was working through us in an invisible manner to accomplish his work. Something along these lines seems to be happening when we pray in tongues. Since we're praying in a tongue we're speaking a language we don't understand ("my mind is unfruitful"), but we're also mysteriously praying through the Spirit in us ("my spirit prays").

As I said, this is my view on these texts, and you might come to a different conclusion.


Perhaps the most important reason to see that man is a dichotomy and not a trichotomy is when it comes to our sanctification. The goal of sanctification is to change and become and more like Christ. If we are mistaken about what we even are then we can make mistakes about what we need in order to change. If I believe that I have a sinful soul but a holy (human) spirit I will assume that holiness comes from living out of my spirit instead of my soul, and I sin when I live out of my soul instead of my spirit.

I might also miss the important connection between the body and the soul. To think in trichotomist terms puts a lot of emphasis on my spirit-soul and diminishes the role of the body. Yet it's important to see that my body impacts my soul and my soul impacts my body. We all know that a depressed soul can make our bodies sick, but it's also true that a sick body can make my soul depressed. The answer in this situation is not to forget about our body and our soul and just live out of our spirit. The answer is to treat the sickness that is in the body and to turn to Christ in faith in our soul. Maybe the answer is a self-counseling session like we find in Psalm 42:5-6a:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God;
for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.

There's a lot about what we are that I don't fully understand. Even what I said above is filled with nuances and follow-up questions. But along with Wayne Grudem, Charles Hodge, John Murray, John Calvin, and others I do believe we are body-and-soul and not body-and-soul-spirit.


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